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Shifting prison populations

Our view: As incarceration rates for blacks fall, the racial makeup of Maryland's inmate population is undergoing a significant shift

5:06 PM EST, March 4, 2013

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For decades, African-Americans have been sentenced to prison at far higher rates than their proportion of the population would suggest. In 2000, black men were incarcerated at nearly eight times the rate of white men, while black women were nearly three times more likely to be imprisoned than white women. But for the first time in recent memory those disparities appear to be narrowing, according to a new study. If the trend continues it could have implications for the racial makeup of prison populations across the U.S., including those in Maryland.

The survey, conducted by the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based prison research and advocacy group, found that between 2000 and 2009 incarceration rates nationally dropped 9.8 percent for black men and by an even larger 30.7 percent for black women. At the same time, the rate at which white men were imprisoned rose by 8.5 percent and incarceration rates for white women jumped a startling 47.1 percent.

Though the Sentencing Project report did not break down the results by state, it appears that Maryland is following the national trend. The state is one of only five in the nation that saw an overall decrease in the number of inmates in its prisons during the last decade, and the racial makeup of its prison population is also changing. Figures from the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services show that the percentage of African-American inmates in Maryland prisons dropped from 77.8 percent in 2000 to 74.7 percent a decade later, even though the share of blacks in the overall population increased during that time.

For many years, experts have debated the reasons for racial disparities in the U.S. prison population. The explanations have included systemic bias in the criminal justice system that punishes blacks more harshly than whites for similar crimes; poverty; unemployment; and aggressive policing tactics that disproportionately affect minority communities. It's likely that all those factors played some role in creating the disparity in incarceration rates, but the most important may have been changes in drug laws and sentencing guidelines for drug offenses.

Beginning in the 1980s, states began adopting harsh mandatory sentencing guidelines for drug possession that resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of African-Americans for low-level, nonviolent drug offenses. The violence associated with the crack epidemic, in particular, led lawmakers to make the penalties for possession of even small amounts crack equivalent to those for much larger quantities of powder cocaine, which was more often used by whites. The net effect was an explosion in the black prison population that exacerbated the racial disparities already in the system.

But revisions in federal and state sentencing laws in recent years have narrowed the sentencing gap between crack and powder cocaine. At the same time, the violence associated with crack has become less of an issue as use of the drug has declined. That, combined with the fact that many inmates given long sentences for drug offenses are now emerging from prison, has produced a disproportionate exodus of black inmates that is reflected in lower rates of incarceration for African-Americans as a whole.

The Sentencing Project report suggests that many states, including Maryland, have made significant progress toward reducing racial disparities in their prison populations but that the proportion of blacks who are incarcerated clearly remains far too high. In Maryland, blacks make up 30 percent of the state's population but still represent nearly three-quarters of the inmate population. The revision of federal and state drug laws represented the beginning of reform, but much work remains to be done to eliminate the continuing racial disparities in the state's prisons.

Meanwhile, the increasing rates of incarceration among whites suggest that rising numbers of them are being arrested and prosecuted under tough mandatory sentencing laws for methamphetamines that are still in effect. Over the long run, such laws could turn out to be as destructive to whites as overly harsh crack laws were for blacks.

It's been more than a quarter century since former Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke called on the nation to cease treating drug abuse as a criminal justice matter and treat it instead as a public health issue. For his trouble, Mr. Schmoke, a former city prosecutor, was ridiculed by conservatives as soft on crime, but today it's apparent that any benefit to society of filling the nation's prisons with hundreds of thousands of low-level, nonviolent drug offenders is far outweighed by the damage to individual lives, families and communities. We should not make that mistake again.

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